Members of the Republican Guards stand in line at a barricade blocking protesters supporting deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi in Cairo July 9, 2013. (Reuters/Khaled Abdullah)
It’s not a good sign that the ruling military council in Egypt and its holdover judges are mooting the release of the imprisoned former president, Hosni Mubarak. Having crossed the line of no return, however, by killing as many as a thousand pro–Muslim Brotherhood protesters in a series of mass shootings, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi and his cohorts are all in. It’s almost inconceivable that the military will seek to reconcile with Egypt’s Islamists, nor is the Muslim Brotherhood likely to respond to any overtures from the army.
President Obama has criticized the military, halted the delivery of four F-16s, canceled US-Egyptian military exercises, and may cut back on economic aid. Given the situation, a complete halt to US military support to Egypt is called for—but it will be useless, and it will likely backfire as happened in Pakistan after Washington broke with Islamabad over Pakistan’s nukes. Egypt’s military seems to know what it wants, and it won’t be deterred.
There are scenarios aplenty: a spiraling descent into Syria- or Algeria-1990s-style civil war; a long-running standoff with sporadic violence between the ruling military and Islamist radicals; the return of a veneer of democracy, if the military can coopt some civilians into serving as the face of what will be an authoritarian, army-backed government. For the United States, however, there are no good choices, no good options and almost no useful leverage.
Egypt’s new military government will probably be in power for the long haul, and it’s very likely that the Muslim Brotherhood will be dissolved and banned, returning to the underground status it maintained from 1954 to 1970. Whether it can survive without a major foreign patron is a question, since during the 1954–70 period the Brothers had the backing of Saudi Arabia, which, like them, bitterly opposed the government of then-President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Now, Saudi Arabia—like Israel—is strongly backing the armed forces. As The Wall Street Journal reported:
In a comparatively rare public foreign-policy statement read Friday on Saudi television, King Abdullah declared that what was happening in Egypt was an Arab affair. “Let it be known to those who interfered in Egypt’s internal affairs that they themselves are fanning the fire of sedition and are promoting the terrorism which they call for fighting,” he declared, without mentioning any country by name.
That’s almost precisely the language that Saudi Arabia used when it accused the United States of interfering in Egypt’s “internal affairs” back in 2011, when Riyadh blamed Washington for supporting the fall of Mubarak.